Cancer. It’s one of the scariest words we know. When I think cancer, I think of my two aunts who won the fight against breast cancer. I think about the substitute I had in high school because my teacher left in middle of the year to fight, and ultimately succumb to, the nightmare. And I think about a little girl I know, who couldn’t give her mother a hard time about braids or pigtails – as every little girl should – because she didn’t have any hair. I think about the chemo that stole a chunk of her childhood. I pray it hasn’t robbed her of the ability to have her own children one day.
Cancer. An estimated one in two men and one in three women will develop cancer in their lifetime. If cancer hasn’t killed someone we know, it’s likely killed something in them. It is the nightmare, the horror, the “if-I-shut-my-eyes-tight-enough-it-will-disappear” panic that haunts us.
So, when the White House announced the cancer “moonshot” initiative, the eternal optimist in me was dancing. “For the loved ones we all lost, for the families we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” said President Barack Obama last week in his State of the Union address.
Is it a realistic moonshot? Are we dreaming too big?
From measles to polio to smallpox, our country has a good track record of eliminating disease. Before the adoption of the measles vaccine in the 1960s, three to four million Americans got measles each year. Today, it is virtually nonexistent (any new cases of measles in recent decades have been introduced by unvaccinated international travelers). In the 1950s, there were 60,000 cases of polio each year in the United States. Thanks to modern medicine, once again, polio largely does not exist here today.
While smallpox incidence data is limited, historians cite that by the 1800s the disease was so rampant that it wiped out entire Native American tribes. By the early 1900s, smallpox was essentially eradicated from the United States, and the last known case was in 1949.
Let’s take a look at cancer. In the 1940s, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death among women. By the early 1990s, incidence and death rates had declined by more than 60 percent because of the introduction of the Pap smear.
So we can do this, right?
Today, there are about 14 million Americans living with cancer, and curing them means millions of different treatment regimens. Cancer treatment is most certainly not one-size-fits-all. While personalized medicine has come far, we are still a long way from providing treatments that are specifically designed for every individual’s biological profile and can cure every type of cancer. And none of this even factors in the need for cancer prevention tools.
Indeed, Obama’s “cure cancer” goal will probably take many moonshots rather than just one. But I would be terrified and disappointed if we didn’t pool all resources available to us and give it our all. If nothing else, the cancer moonshot will force us to try as if our lives depend on it – because they do.
Vice President Joe Biden has already met with leading researchers to establish concrete initiatives that will break down silos, bringing all the dreamers together to ensure that the research each of them has conducted over the past decades is being shared. Biden has made it clear that while we will not cure cancer overnight, we can cut the battle time in half. I applaud Biden for turning grief over his son’s death into a nationwide effort to cure cancer, turning a nightmare into a dream.
Are we dreaming too big? Are we being too ambitious?
No such thing. Every triumph in history started with a dreamer.